Beach condo sued by woman in wheelchair for FHA discrimination
Daily Business Review
Samantha Joseph
08 September 2016

All was well until board members on a Miami Beach condominium association saw her in person, according to a discrimination lawsuit by a woman who uses a wheelchair.

resistance from the condo board

Rachel Siler, 31, said she got a rude awakening after traveling from Chicago to move into Abbott House, blocks from one of South Florida's most popular beaches. She said she moved in despite resistance from the condo board, which allegedly retaliated by changing her call-box number to prevent her guests from buzzing in, locking the gate she used, banning a service animal and installing a table in front of an automatic door sensor.

Siler leased the condo without visiting through a Miami real estate agent, who sought a property with elevators, wheelchair ramps, wide doors and proximity to public transportation.

At $1,300, the one-bedroom corner unit at Abbott House was perfect. It fit her budget, met all access criteria, had marble floors that aided wheelchair operation and Art Deco architecture that complimented Siler's collection of midcentury antiques.

She did not get the reception that she was expecting

"She did not get the reception that she was expecting," said plaintiffs attorney Matthew Dietz of Disability Independence Group Inc. in Miami.

Siler expected a perfunctory meeting with the condo board based on conversations with her landlord and real estate agent, who weren't named as defendants. But Dietz said Abbott House Inc. officials seemed alarmed by his client's disability and the presence of her personal assistant and caregiver.

"Instead of speaking to Rachel, a board member started asking questions of Rachel's assistant as if Rachel could not speak for herself," Dietz said, "Do you live with her? Will you always be with her? Do you sleep with her?"

Abbott House's community association manager Orlando Castro of Hialeah-based Casmat Professional Services Inc. denied any wrongdoing.

"We were very kind to her and allowed everything that we could," Castro said before referring further inquiries to the association's attorney.

Defense attorney Joseph Richard Miele Jr. of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck in Fort Lauderdale did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

'It was excruciating'
Siler was making the move to accept a job as an independent-living advocate at the nonprofit Center for Independent Living of South Florida. In her new position, she'd continue the work she'd done for years by helping disabled clients find affordable and accessible housing.

But on the day of her move, she said the condo board and property manager peppered her with intrusive questions, including inquiries about her private life, in an effort to dissuade her from taking possession of the unit.

"It was excruciating," she said. "I showed up, they saw I was in a wheelchair, and they started asking deep questions."
Siler said she'd exchanged a series of texts with Castro to confirm the moving date and arrange to pay administrative fees. She said both the real estate agent and landlord cleared her to occupy the condo and assured her the condo board meeting was a formality.

But after the in-person meeting, Castro issued a denial via email, which was attached to court documents.

"By the understanding of the board of directors … the building has not the appropriate accessibility for people with disabilities," according to the message.

The denial letter cited a lack of curb ramps, handicapped parking spaces, loading areas, restroom accommodations and other factors.

"All of the above are part of the main considerations of the Americans with Disabilities Act," according to the email. "The association cannot be responsible for any future claim requested by Ms. Siler and any other officer of … Miami-Dade County."

Her six-count complaint demands a jury trial.

Siler, who had keys to the unit, moved in on her attorney's advice and sued in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Her six-count complaint demands a jury trial. It alleges violation of the Fair Housing Act; failure to reasonably accommodate; discrimination in the terms, conditions or privileges of the provision of housing services or facilities; retaliation under the federal Fair Housing Act; intentional interference with a contractual relationship; and intentional interference with an advantageous business relationship.

"The most important thing to me is that people realize they cannot deny people with disabilities somewhere to live. The landlord approved me. I can afford it. There is no reason for them to deny me," Siler said. "Now they're hindering my ability to get into my home. It's crazy that they think they can do that."

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